"You can read a thousand-million books on Buddhism,
and until you come into community with sangha and teachers,
until you receive real-life energetic transmissions -- it’s not the same."
Rev. Karen Do'on Weik Osho
On Sunday, September 22, novice Zuisei met with Rev. Karen Do’on Weik Osho to chat about Do’on’s personal experiences with the traditional Tibetan source material for the upcoming teaching retreat What to Expect When You Are Human (Tuesday Oct. 8 - Friday Oct. 11) and the White Tara Workshop (Saturday Oct. 12). Do’on’s life and Dharma practice transformed after becoming a student of Lama Kyabje Gelek Rimpoche and training with him on the Stages of the Path (Lam Rim) and the White Tara blessing. Do’on and Rev. Jay Rinsen Weik Roshi found the Stages of the Path teaching so compelling, they asked for Gelek Rimpoche’s official blessing to make their own adaptation of the Stages of the Path to create a bridge between the independent Mahayana traditions of Zen and the Tibetan Lam Rim masters.
Read the first part of the interview, about the Stages of the Path, below. The second part of the interview, about the White Tara Workshop, will be published later this week.
Zuisei: Thank you so much for meeting with me today to share with the Sangha about your personal experience with the Lam Rim teaching. As usual, BTT is offering many ways for students to engage with Ango. You’ve spoken about the importance of every student receiving the Stages of the Path teaching at least once in their lifetime. Since you and Roshi feel this teaching is so vital for your students, can you tell us about how you first encountered it and why you find it so compelling?
Do’on: I encountered this teaching from Gelek Rimpoche quite late in my training, about 7 or 8 years ago. Before that, my whole life’s training was under the guidance of my Zen Teachers, due my own delusions I wasn’t putting all the pieces together of wisdom and compassion. I suppose I was “winging it” but with broken wings.
Do’on: There also needs to be a foundation of clarity and rationality that doesn’t hinder that spontaneity. I say this as a person who loves the spontaneity and the deep intuitive and quantum leaps of Zen. I wouldn’t have it any other way -- I love my Zen training. I feel like my Zen training has completely opened my heart and given my mind such freedom. And yet, for whatever reason, I didn’t get that soup-to-nuts rationality and foundational clarity about what I was doing with spiritual practice.
Do’on: There were a lot of holes and twisted places in my heart, a lot of places where love and compassion just wasn’t softening and tenderizing perception. I was abandoned at birth and put into foster care until I was almost 5. So there was lots of suffering to be healed. Of course, this is the source of great power and perception now. Because I have been in so many dark places I can easily see it in others. And I am not afraid to go there.
Zuisei: And this teaching filled in the missing pieces of wisdom and compassion?
Do’on: It was literally like when you [shuffle] your deck of cards and … [sound effect and hand motion of riffle shuffling and bridging a deck of playing cards where the cards come suddenly and rapidly into alignment].
"That is exactly what happened with me when I heard this teaching.
All the years of scratching my head and not understanding went 'Whoosh!'
and came together like the deck of cards."
By Johnny Blood - Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0,
Do’on: That is exactly what happened with me when I heard this teaching. All the years of scratching my head and not understanding went “Whoosh!” and came together like the deck of cards. It was the most joyful thing for me, and it was very clear to Rimpoche that it was happening. And of course, after that there is still tons to work on! But at least now I know where I am in the process, and I know some of the places where the masters have said, “If you’re having this issue, these are some of the antidotes” and “this is where this particular affliction is really messing with you” and “Remember where you’re going and why you’re going there!”
Do’on: Speaking of “Remember where you’re going and why you’re going there”, the most important part of this teaching is the establishment of Bodhi mind [bodhicitta]. Most people don’t first come to the Dharma thinking: “for the sake of everybody else, to bring everybody else to full and complete enlightenment, I am going to enlighten.” Most people come thinking: “I’m miserable” or “I’m stressed out” or “I’m a mess” or “I need to get my life together.” The Lam Rim teaching shows us how “getting my life together” by choosing love and choosing peace is just the first step in Dharma practice. A necessary first step - to choose freedom. This is also traditionally called Renunciation. It’s one of the three principles of the path: Renunciation, Concentration, and Meditation.
Do’on: Renunciation is a necessary step, but it is not sufficient and complete. And if we establish Bodhi mind right at the beginning of our practice, it is a thousand-million times easier to practice because we’re not using our practice as a way of covertly cherishing the non grasping self.
Zuisei: In your training was Bodhi mind something you had kind of stumbled into, heard a little about here and there but didn’t have a model of it like this, or were you familiar with it before the Stages of the Path teaching?
Do’on: I had some teachings on this before meeting Gelek Rimpoche, but everything was piecemeal. Bodhi mind is there in all the Zen services and in the Bodhisattva Vows, but in the absence of specific teaching and training on how to really comb through the steps to that Bodhi mind, we’re left to our own devices to guess at “okay, here I am, this is what is going on with me, this is what I’m working on now.” It’s much better to rely on the wisdom and expertise of the lineage. The Stages of the Path teaching completely organizes the path for you -- it shows how one point pushes you into the next point, and that point then pushes you into the next point. It gives your mind a way of organizing all the material. I can’t say enough how important this is.
Zuisei: The first time I read this teaching in the Seminary, I realized I had already met some parts of it through the Daily Liturgy and from some other teachings you’d given. I was surprised because I was expecting something I’d never encountered before, but actually you and Roshi have incorporated it into many of your teachings -- so for people who’ve started their practice in this community, this may feel very familiar, not foreign. Could you reflect a little bit about that?
Do’on: Yes! So essentially the Daily Liturgy is a mini Lam Rim. At the Teaching Retreat, we’re taking the deep dive into what we say everyday. After the Teaching Retreat, when we come back home and do the Daily Liturgy -- now we have all the knowledge, reflection, analysis, meditation on the points to really enrich our practice.
Zuisei: You’ve mentioned before that Galek Rimpoche not only taught you the Lam Rim, but also gave you and Roshi permission to adapt the Lam Rim teaching and synthesize it with Zen teaching. What appeals to you and Roshi about synthesizing them?
Do’on: I was so profoundly affected by his teaching that he had me weeping. After the first time I received the teaching, I saw him in a car in the parking lot of a grocery store. He had the window rolled down, and I walked up with my hands in gassho and I was just like: “Thank you, thank you!” and he said “Shh! Don’t say that! There’s people in the car!”
Zuisei: You had the “stink” of Lam Rim?
Do’on: Something like that! My eyes were like saucers: “Thank you so much, you’ve saved my soul.”
"My eyes were like saucers. 'Thank you so much, you've saved my soul.' "
Sakurai Midori [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)]
Do'on: I had genuine complete gratitude in my heart but it was just a little too bright for that moment, for the Whole Foods parking lot, for the people in the Rimpoche’s backseat.
Zuisei: And so you wanted to share this teaching with your students?
Do’on: It wasn’t just that I wanted to share it. It was an absolute necessity. I wouldn’t be a good teacher if I didn’t share this. This is the Dharma coming through Rimpoche to me. In fact, Rimpoche would say to me: “You are the bridge”. He really wanted this practice and this teaching to come into Zen training.
Zuisei: There are many versions of the source material for the Teaching Retreat -- the Lam Rim. What will be different about attending the Teaching Retreat from reading Gelek Rimpoche’s version (Odyssey to Freedom) or Pabonka’s version (Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand) or the mother of all the versions -- Tsongkhapa’s (The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment). I’ve heard you teach from all of them at times. What is going to be different about attending the Teaching Retreat from picking up a copy of one of these?
Do’on: For now, I’ve decided to return to the mother and work on Tsongkhapa directly. As we know, you can read a thousand-million books on Buddhism, and until you come into community with sangha and teachers, until you receive real-life energetic transmissions -- it’s not the same. It’s not even the same participating with your community and teachers online, but it’s better than just reading a book. This type of teaching is called “ear-whispered teaching”.
Do’on: In Zen we esteem mind-to-mind transmission. It’s very important to be in the room together to connect energetically with each other. The words are one communication, and then as we work together elucidating each step of the path, the lineage comes through me [the Teacher] to give power. And there is always more for us to do to study and integrate, but there’s a tremendous amount of power that comes through the lineage, through the ear-whispered approach.
Do’on: People who receive the teachings this way will be shifted -- and some won’t even know how they are being shifted. They’ll finish the week and they be like: “Oh my god, I’m not the same person!” That’s what we want -- a radical transformation -- and it does happen.
Zuisei: It happened for you!
Zuisei: At past Teaching Retreats that covered other topics, you and Roshi have invited everyone to drop-in for an afternoon or morning, with each session being self-contained. But this material is different. How should we think about the value and importance of coming to the whole retreat?
Do’on: The Lam Rim is a very sophisticated, intimate mind training. To really work with it takes focus, concentration, persistence, and analysis over time. So the best way to receive the teachings is to come to the whole retreat, to meditate on each step, and see how each step moves you to the next step. When you come for the whole retreat, you’re immersing yourself completely into each step of the path. At the upcoming retreat, we’re going to be focusing on the part of the teaching that covers how Bodhi mind is actually realized in ourselves. We’ll be working on the 7-point mind training and Shantideva’s Exchanging of Self and Other. So if you come in and we’re on Step 3 and you haven’t done Steps 1 & 2, it’s a little harder to get yourself up to speed -- but there is still value!
Do’on: For now, for this upcoming retreat, I want everybody to come as much as you can. Just come and do it, because even if you drop in for one step, you’re going to get a lot of value out of it! Particularly because of the way we’re teaching with focus on everyone engaging with the teaching through small-group discussions and Q&A.
Do’on: People in our Sangha have super busy lives, and we offer a lot of training opportunities, so people can’t come to everything. At this point, it’s just not realistic for most people to come for the whole retreat the way we’ve organized it so far. So Roshi and I are in a “what are we going to do here?” zone. We’re trying to figure out what is the best way to deliver this teaching. Next year we might do it a little differently -- we might have single 7-day long residential Teaching Retreat that’s more of a combination of sesshin and Teaching Retreat, with zazen in the morning, and then working on the material during the day. When we get the new building, so many more possibilities open up for the life of the Sangha.
Zuisei: If I understand correctly, the way folks traditionally received the Lam Rim was to attend a very long retreat, and to stay for the whole retreat. I remember the Seminarians and Teachers read a written transcript of a 20-some day retreat.
Do’on: Back in Tibet, there was such a culture of monastics, and people just lived lives differently and had a lot more time. So they would just say “Pabonka’s gonna give a teaching on the Lam Rim so we’re going to hang out for a couple of months and get the teachings.” So there is precedence for having longer retreats, and as our Sangha gets stronger, we would love to do a 20-day retreat at BTT -- but we’re not there yet!
Zuisei: If someone catches just a session of the retreat, or wants to dig in deeper, after getting a taste of this teaching in community, would there be value in reading one of the books?
Do’on: Sure. I think the easiest one to get into is Rimpoche’s Odyssey to Freedom. And Rinsen and I are working on our own version. These Teaching Retreats are part of how we’re creating the transcript for it.
[Note from Zuisei: The upcoming teaching retreat will be live streamed on our Facebook page and will be recorded. You can also find the video recordings from Roshi and Osho’s past editions of What to Expect When You Are Human on our Facebook videos page: see the playlist called What to Expect When You're Human - 2019 Edition]
Zuisei: Is there anything more you’d like to say about the Teachings or the Teaching Retreat to the community?
Do’on: The most important thing is to really get that the heart and the mind have to be integrated. It’s not enough to wildly pass through your koans and enjoy the dance of it. We also have to get inside all of those unexamined places in our perception and the way we organize our minds, so that the freedom and the love and the joy of the koan study can really merge with a mind that has been purified and clarified of all afflictions and obscurations, so that our own mental processes can be healed.
Do’on: And if you have not started koan study yet, it’s so much better to start with the Lam Rim! It’s better to have a sense of where you’re going before you set out on the trip - a little map. And of course anyone who has ever traveled knows: “Whoah! The land is not the map.” We all know that! We hold it lightly and we really get all of the juice and the nourishment out of it.
Part two of this interview, focusing on the White Tara Workshop, will be published Thursday evening.